A Review of HBO’s John Adams

By Brian Livingston

The birth of the United States of America is acknowledged as a most significant turning point for history and society in the western world. Within the story of this familiar truth, there is a heretofore somewhat neglected patriot, John Adams. Author David McCullough did much to bring due attention to this great American hero with the publication of his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, John Adams. HBO furthered this cause by producing a seven part miniseries, based on that book, by the same title.

The depiction of John Adams, played by the talented Paul Giamatti begins in Boston, Massachusetts in 1770, just before the Boston Massacre. Adams, a successful lawyer, finds himself thrust upon the world of politics when he is asked to defend the British soldiers implicated in the events. The film does well in establishing Adams as a man of high character and principles when he accepts this task, successfully defending these men despite his sympathy for the early movement towards colonial dissent.

Later when the Intolerable Acts are imposed by the British, Adams is angered and firmly aligns himself with the more radical revolutionaries. The story follows Adams through his career as a delegate for Massachusetts at the Continental Congress, in which he pushes for and aids in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

Adams is then sent to France, along with his son John Quincy, to assist Benjamin Franklin in gaining French support in the war against England. This blunt, stubborn, and often impatient son of a Puritan Congregationalist finds himself somewhat ineffective amid the games and debauchery of the French court. The movie then takes the audience further by exploring Adams’ time as a diplomat in Holland and his work later as America’s first ambassador to England.

After years apart Adams and his beloved wife are finally reunited. After some time spent together in France and England, John and Abigail come home to a hero’s welcome and settle in at their newly acquired home, Peacefield. Adams doesn’t have much time to relax however because he is soon elected Vice President of the United States. Adams’ time as Vice President frustrates the illustrious man because of the weakness of the office. Adams in a historically accurate line of dialogue states, “My country in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” After only eight years George Washington decided that he had had his fill of the burdens of the Presidency, setting a precedent that would later contribute to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951.

The film is brief concerning the nomination and campaign that won Adams the Presidency. This is fitting since the film largely emphasizes the view of Adams himself, and in that particular era it was not typical for a candidate to participate openly in his own campaign. Adams was narrowly elected to the Presidency with Thomas Jefferson as his Vice President. The film puts emphasis on the growing rift between these long time friends and colleagues. The rift begins with their disagreement over U.S. policy towards France and is exacerbated by Adams’ support of a precautionary military build up and his implementation of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Before the end of his term as President, Adams alienates his own Federalist allies and cabinet members. Against their wishes he pushes for peace with France and dissolves the standing Army to the disgust of the chief Federalist of the day, Alexander Hamilton. The film portrays Adams as knowing that these decisions will most likely lose him re-election, but true to his character Adams acts according to his conscience. Adams inevitably loses the election to a second term, being defeated by Thomas Jefferson; Adams leaves the capital for Peacefield, and chooses not to attend Jefferson’s inauguration.

Also highlighted in the film are the more personal tragedies in Adams’ life from the last year of his Presidency until his death. In the final days of Adams’ administration his alcoholic son Charles dies of liver failure. Then his beloved daughter Nabby undergoes a mastectomy for breast cancer, but tragically later succumbs to the disease and dies. Finally Adams endures what the film portrays as the most difficult personal tragedy: the death of his most trusted advisor, greatest friend, and beloved wife, Abigail.

There are, however, in this film some positive aspects and details of the later years of President Adams’ life. Adams lives to see his son John Quincy elected to the presidency in 1825. Giamatti does a wonderful job of conveying Adams’ peaceful, joyous pride in his son. Also in his later years Adams resumes correspondence with the esteemed Thomas Jefferson, and both men acknowledge that their differences were never personal, only idealistic and political. Their mutual respect, admiration and staunch friendship are restored. The film does, however, inaccurately depict this resumption of correspondence as beginning after the death of Abigail, but it is well documented that these two great patriots had resumed their communications as early as 1812.

The story ends on 4 July 1826 with the eerie coincidence of the deaths of Jefferson and Adams on the same day only hours apart. In the film Adams speaks his last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adding even more significance to this coincidence, this particular Independence Day was the 50th anniversary of the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence!

This miniseries is full of important and well developed characters outside of the main character himself. The foremost of these, and truly the foremost in Adams’ life, is Abigail Adams. Laura Linney does a fabulous job of portraying this strong, intelligent, and principled woman. The film does well to establish her positive influence on her husband, and leads the audience to believe that she is perhaps just as responsible for John Adams’ accomplishments as the man himself. Her influence on Adams is displayed in one scene when John Adams is considering accepting a commission to be employed by the English crown and is feeling quite full of himself. Abigail simply but sternly says, “John…ambition!” pointing out behavior that is unbecoming a moral and dignified man. In a later scene Adams is once again set straight by his wife with only two words, “Vanity, John!”
After Abigail a particular importance is placed on Adams’ relationship with Thomas Jefferson, played by Stephen Dillane. The movie does great justice to history by placing an emphasis on the friendship and respect that these two patriots felt for one another. Too often these gentlemen are depicted as staunch enemies. They did become political adversaries due to their difference in opinion, but their correspondence between one another, and with others such as Abigail, reveal that each man never doubted the purity of the other’s motives.

John and Abigail’s children are, of course, present in this work and the film shows well the influence that the children had on Adams. The portrayal of Adams’ relationship with his children assisted in the development of the main character. The film excludes mention of Adams’ still born daughter, Susanna, but John Quincy (Eben Moss-Bachrach), Nabby (Sarah Polley), Charles (Kevin Trainor) and Thomas (Thomas Langston) are all included in this work.

Also a plethora of important and noteworthy political figures are represented in this motion picture. Any work concerning the American Revolution would fall far short if it didn’t include America’s first president, George Washington. David Morse’s portrayal of Washington exhibits a quiet yet inspiring man whose role as a unifying element and perpetual motivator is more important than his conceptual contribution to the revolutionary movement. The film indicates Washington’s popularity and shows the universal respect and admiration of his peers that gained him first his command of the continental army and later the presidency.

The film also delivers a good representation of the ever evolving relationship of Washington and Adams. Adams, after being quite impressed with Washington’s strength of character, is the delegate who nominates Washington to the command of the continental army. Washington’s appointment to this post is unanimously confirmed by Congress. Although Adams’ great respect for Washington never diminishes, Adams is excluded from Washington’s inner circle of advisors during this first administration. Adams’ time as Vice President is shown by this film to be truly frustrating and disappointing.

Alexander Hamilton, played by Rufus Sewell, is depicted as a shrewd, devious, and clever politician. The film seems to indicate that Hamilton would lend his support to a fellow politician only if his recommendations were followed explicitly. When Adams finally defies Hamilton, he reacts by publishing, “…Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq.” that fiercely attacks Adams on a personal, as well as a political, level.

Tom Wilkinson plays the role of Benjamin Franklin and gives the character a wise and diplomatic, if somewhat eccentric feel. The film also effectively demonstrates the extremely inflated popularity of Franklin in this period. Adams’ great friend, the ever present and constantly supportive Benjamin Rush is played by John Dossett. A final important character to be mentioned is John Adams’ cousin, Samuel Adams, played by Danny Huston. Huston delivers a character with radical ideals and passionate demeanor who seems to have a high respect for his cousin and even appears somewhat embarrassed when Adams calls him out about his support of over- zealous and lawless behavior.

It would be a mistake not to mention the brief appearance of two of Europe’s powerful monarchs in this film. Firstly, Adams is granted an audience at Versailles with King Louis XVI. The film’s brief portrayal of this last pre revolutionary Bourbon monarch leaves the audience with the impression of a foolish dandy of a king who is unconcerned with the gravity of Adams’ position. The film also touches on an audience of Adams, as America’s first Ambassador to England after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, with England’s King George III. George III is depicted as a very serious, eccentric figure who is obsessed with formality and ceremony. The King does express his pleasure at Adams’ humble and deferential approach to the royal audience, although some might contend that the king expected no less.

The esteemed historian David McCullough himself was a technical advisor to HBO in the making of this film. The accuracy and detail are quite simply breathtaking. The costumes produced looked as if they were pulled right out of a portrait of the period. The details of each set, from Boston Harbor to the Great Palace of Versailles, which was filmed on site, were meticulous. As an example of this attention to small details, the mantles shown in Adams’ New England residences had developed a dirty layer of soot from the constant fires required for heat and cooking. The portrayal of the extreme luxury and debauchery of the French elite at the time was also well aligned with historical studies of the era.

There are many works both cinematic and literary that deal with the American Revolution. One well known movie is another television miniseries entitled George Washington starring Barry Bostick. This film was aired in 1988 and by all accounts is an exceptional example of this historical era. In addition, The American Revolution, a ten part documentary produced by the History Channel, also offers a wealth of historical insight. In the literary realm, a book that is highly recommended is the biography that this film was based upon, David McCullough’s John Adams. It is enlightening and just as entertaining as any work of fiction that one can read on this era. Another book, also by David McCullough, that comes highly recommended is entitled 1776.

Although I had already read David McCullough’s biography, my recent studies of the history of western civilization have allowed me to view John Adams and the events surrounding him in much broader terms. In addition to the more obvious effects of this man on American political culture and government structure, I am now able to see how European culture and politics shaped America in its early days and in turn how America later shaped Europe’s destiny. For example, John Adams’ father would probably not have migrated to America were it not for the religious persecution in England caused by the turmoil of the Reformation. In another direction, perhaps the French Revolution would not have occurred if the American Revolutionaries had not succeeded in defying the great imperial power of England. An example was set with the American Revolution and the world would never be the same. Were it not for John Adams, it is possible that the moderates in the Continental Congress would have won preponderance and the Revolution in America would have been delayed or even negated.

If it were not for John Adams and the American Revolution the world would be a very different place today. One cannot begin to fathom what would have occurred if the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution had never been drafted. HBO displayed the story and importance of John Adams to a great multitude of people who might otherwise be unaware of his contributions. As Adams says in one bit of dialogue, “I’ll not be in the history books. Only Franklin. Franklin did this, and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang General Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Then Franklin electrified him with that miraculous lighting-rod of his, and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse-conducted the entire War for Independence all by themselves.”